Frontiers is an exploration heavy, first-person open world RPG, inspired by a love for - and occasional frustration with - The Elder Scrolls series. It's being created by Lars Simkins, a Visual FX artist who since 2011 has been building the game's vast environment. He's has now taken Frontiers to Kickstarter , in an attempt to raise money for a small team who can see the game through to completion. I spoke to Lars to learn about the philosophy and features that are driving this ambitious project, which aims to appeal to those who prefer the gentle pleasure of discovery to the thrill of hacking fantasy beasts into chunks.
Frontiers contains many of the RPG standards you'd expect. You'll embark on quests, learn skills and progress through a central story. But if your idea of the perfect RPG is clearing hundreds of monster ridden dungeons in search of marginal stat buffs to your gear, Simkins openly admits that Frontiers may not be for you. "Never hurts to give it a shot," he qualifies. "There are fights and weapons and quests and temples, so on the surface it would appear to have everything you'd want, right? But these things only exist to serve the exploration, and fights are usually very small scale and simple."
Of course, grand role-playing heroism is already well served by established developers. Simkins cites Daggerfall, Fallout 2 and System Shock 2 as the titles that truly made him invest in gaming - presenting stories and worlds in a way unmatched by other forms of media. But he also notes that the "coldly logical" number-crunching nature of an RPG's systems can often be at odds with their desired emotional impact.
"Over time that mode of thinking sort of calcifies and spoils the emotional side," he explains. "Instead of looking for treasure in that abstract, right-brained way that gets your emotions going, you're looking for type [x] armor for level [y] and above class [z] so you can sell it for [#] gold pieces. You open a chest and discover a magnificent golden chalice and instead of reacting to the imagery and the sound and the mood of that moment, you're crunching numbers like an accountant."
To combat this, Frontiers focuses on discovery and survival. A central part of the game - what Simkins describes as its "one truly unique feature" - is the 'paths' system. By crafting Path Markers, you'll be able create a route that links distinct landmarks. "There are a few restrictions - Markers can't be too close or too far apart, for instance - but generally paths can be as long or short or wiggly as you want, and you can place Path Markers anywhere but in water."
A completed path provides a number of benefits. Firstly, it acts as a guide, creating a light beam along the ground that you can follow should you run out of torches at night. Secondly, walking along an established path provides a boost to your health and hunger. In a desperate situation, finding and following an established trail will give you a better chance at making it back to civilisation.
Paths also enable fast travel between landmarks, something that has been carefully designed to not take you out of the world. Pick a new destination, and instead of instantly teleporting, the camera swoops across the landscape - following your markers through a journey that can stretch across an entire region. It's no less of an unrealistic abstraction, but these picturesque flights are an elegant way of not forcing the player to retread old ground.
Immersion is clearly important to Simkins - something he compares to building a house of cards. With Frontiers, his aim is to create systems that feel engaging, but aren't so intricate that they knock over the deck. "The complexity of combat or skills or whatever hits a ceiling when it threatens to knock that house of cards over. Combat is a good example. Combat is totally possible in that dream state, and it can even be challenging - but it has to feel intuitive. It has to be something your right brain can handle."
"Of course, there has to be a balance. If you strip all the numbers and logic from the game you're left with mush. It's just as bad for immersion to have no tangible benefits to hang onto as it is to have too many."
Ultimately, Simkins isn't afraid to abandon logic if the resulting system seems natural. "Crafting using a grid is absurd," he notes, "but it 'feels' right." It's an attitude that's been shaped by his work in VFX. "Movies are so impressionistic - we almost don't notice how impressionistic because editing conventions are so familiar to us now. But even a deliberately straightforward film does things that violate logic to get the audience to the right emotional state. Whatever works, right?"
In keeping with its focus on discovery, Simkins wants Frontiers' quests to constantly direct the player towards something new and exciting - rather than what he calls the "FedEx exploration" of picking up an item and couriering it somewhere else. "It's hard to eliminate those entirely but I try very hard to link them to some interesting lore or to a unique village or something the player wouldn't have a clear incentive to find on their own. I try to take the same approach to temples/ruins and give the player something to do once they get down there - a puzzle, or a unique item, or a cool machine."
This also applies to the story. The game starts as your home is destroyed by an 'Orb' - the latest in a string of increasingly frequent attacks that continue as dynamic encounters throughout the game. If that wasn't enough, your uncle - a famed explorer - has disappeared across the "Rift", an impassable barrier to the South. Finding an answer to these mysteries is high on your to do list.
Unless it's not. After creating your character, you'll be given a history, profession and series of "expectations that are placed on you". But as the player, you'll be free to decide your own path. "The choices you make from that starting point will take you different places," Simkins reveals. "You can choose to quit your profession, or simply ignore it altogether. The story and the game world will progress with or without your intervention."
Beyond your initial choices, you'll be able to progress your character down a number of skill trees. Pathfinding, for instance, improves path creation, and also gives you access to different modes of travel, including horseriding and hang gliders. "I love hang gliding," Simkins enthuses. "I love walking up to a cliff, equipping the glider and leaping off, then drifting gracefully down to the rooftops of a city miles away."
Survival ties into the need to replenish your hunger bar. "You can't die of starvation," Simkins says, "but it will keep your health low, and this makes it difficult to use skills and magic." By investing in Survival skills, you'll be better equipped to hunt, gather and identify the food you collect, as well as gain bonuses to health. "These types of skills sort of replace the stats you find in a typical RPG."
Rounding out your regular upgrade paths are crafting, which will eventually let you create "almost anything in the world", and Magic, which covers everything from potion brewing to individual spells like invisibility and weapon cursing. There's also a fifth skill tree, called 'Obex'. "When you start the game most of the skills in this tree are hidden," Simkins teases. "They're a lot of fun but I don't want to spoil anything."
While the goal of the Kickstarter is to ultimately bring more people into the project, so far Frontiers has been created by a single person. It's a great example of the power and flexibility now offered by game creation tools, and Simkins has nothing but kind things to say about the game's Unity engine - calling it "a dream to work with".
"I've done a lot of programming over the years, and I'm decent at it, but I'm nowhere near good enough to create an engine from scratch. But I also chafe when creating mods because finished game systems force you down a narrow path. Unity hits that perfect sweet spot - it makes enough decisions to provide a foundation while also getting out of my way when I want to strike out in a weird direction. It's literally the first tool I've ever used, in VFX or game development, that I don't find deeply frustrating in some major way."
Which isn't to say it's been an easy process. "Early on I had to cull almost 90% of the game when I started missing deadlines. There were a lot of sandbox features that were just overwhelming me. It was for the best, but staying motivated and positive through a purge like that can be really difficult."
In light of its progress, the reduction of scope would appear to have paid off. If Frontiers can balance its grand ideas with its exploration focus, it has the potential to provide a fascinating world to get lost in.